One of the most important lessons I learned running my business is there are some customers you don’t want. The Extractionist begins with Eliza McKay meeting someone who may be just such a customer.
Kimberly Unger’s Philip K. Dick Award-winning cyberpunk novel follows McKay, a former nanotechnology engineer. The U.S. government has revoked her licenses to practice her profession because of a previous incident that is never fully explained. She now makes her living as a freelance “extractionist”, assisting individuals who have gotten stuck in the shared virtual Internet environment known as “the Swim.”
McKay’s new customer is an agent for a U.S. intelligence agency. This is simultaneously a risk and an opportunity. It’s risky because McKay has tried to stay off the government’s radar since losing her licenses. It’s an opportunity because making new friends in the intelligence community could open up a path to the reinstatement of those licenses. McKay accepts the contract because, like a lot of freelancers, she must take her opportunities where she can.
The Extractionist is a fast-paced read presenting a near-future adorned with believable self-driving “trikes” and nanotechnological “mitelines” for carrying data. I enjoyed getting to know Eliza and coming to understand her problems. As someone with a background in tech, the revelation near the end (of what has been driving the action) resonated with me strongly.
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I can’t blame Unger for my major complaint with the novel. She depicts the Swim as the sort of visual environment that has been part of cyberpunk since William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find these portrayals unconvincing. Visual metaphors may be dramatic, but the proper metaphor for code is linguistic. Unger’s day job is working on the real-world Metaverse, but behind the flashy 3D user interface is code. So when I read descriptions like “…a broad, venomous rope of code streaking along the bottom of the Swim…”, I simultaneously admire the literary skill and wonder what it could actually mean. The Swim, like the Matrix, isn’t an actual place. It doesn’t have a bottom. It’s all code running on a cluster of servers. If you’re going to deal with a threat, you’ll have to address the commands it’s using—you won’t be dodging tentacles. I realize, however, that I’m an overly literal nerd. I’ll stop before I ruin someone else’s fun.
In the end, I can set aside my own biases, which really amount to an indictment of much cyberpunk, and enjoy both the genre and the book for what they are. It’s best not to let too much realism get in the way of a good story, and that’s exactly what The Extractionist is: a good story.
Recommendation: Read it!